Monthly Archives: July 2012

Crystal Maze Crystal is a no-go; but how about a Kray oil painting?

These thoughts came to me after a bout of spontaneity which led me to attempt to get my hands on a souvenir of one of my childhood favourites – a crystal from the brilliant (in my opinion) television programme Crystal Maze.  Obviously having never had the opportunity to take part in the programme, neither being convinced that anyone will revive it (much to my displeasure) I decided that the consolation prize given to each participant would be an excellent potential purchase. 

Ebay returned no hits, merely offering the chance to buy a board game and numerous puzzle adventure books – all of which I had as a child.  According to Wikipedia there were 83 episodes with 6 people per team, so there should be over 500 ‘official’ crystals out there, but no one’s selling.  Gutted isn’t the word.  However, I soon appeased myself by moving onto Blue Peter Badges…

Indeed this practice could well be explained by the twelfth week of my broken leg immobilisation – any kind of distraction seems to make the recovery more bearable.  However, it is no doubt true that there are many people whose legitimate pastime consists of acquiring items such as old toys, artwork and war-related paraphernalia amongst many other location- or subject-specific collectables.  This also led me to consider that there seems to be a huge and easily marketable body of memorabilia associated with prisons.

Again using that popular online auction site, today’s search presented me with 131 items in the Prison Memorabilia category.  Alongside the create-your-own-mugshots and mousemats with the HMP logo, browsers are invited to purchase a sliver of prison life such as towels and shirts from Horfield Prison or a tie pin from HMP Kennet.  Other offerings vary from medals given to prison officers to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to a Cell Fire Safety Plaque Sign.  Sellers play on the celebrity status of certain prisoners, selling photographs and shirts signed by such people as the Kray twins.  At the current moment, an oil painting purported to be done by Ronnie Kray has attracted bids of £51 with just over an hour of the auction remaining.

Last week, the BBC reported that Former MSP Tommy Sheridan has said he is keeping his electronic tag as a “wee souvenir” of his time as a prisoner.  I can see why prisoners themselves might hold onto items, possibly as a stark reminder to their time in prison as a motivation for their personal change.  I can also understand the celebrity collectables culture and this might explain the penchant for owning items belonging to those people.  But what of an everyday item such as an old phone card or standard issue lighter, used by the average prisoner? 

Paul Wright (2000) explained how at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colorado, a prison museum displays prison memorabilia from the past and sells handicrafts made by today’s prisoners.  Wilson (2008) describes the culture of ‘dark tourism’ where people desire experiences of spaces of death, disaster or incarceration for leisure purposes.  I find it intriguing that society has produced a commodification of spaces and items associated with prison, considering the fundamental tenant of prison – which surely should detract anyone from ever wanting to go there or be associated with anything to do with imprisonment.  However, like the Crystal Maze crystal, I suspect that the lack of access for most people, combined with the largely invisible nature of the prison altogether increases the purchase appeal.  And for me, as much as I was tempted, I resisted the urge to bid on a framed Ronnie Kray prison shirt.  The frame was ugly…


Wilson, J. (2008) Prison. Cultural Memory and Dark Tourism. New York: Peter Lang.

Wright, P. (2000) The Cultural Commodification of Prisons, Social Justice 27:15-21.


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‘Private’ lives, ‘public’ space: focus on prisons and conjugal visits

A few weeks ago, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a press statement which announced that it will undertake the first ever review of sex inside prison.  As prison cells are deemed to be public places, sex is therefore an unlawful activity within them.  An Independent Commission consisting of academics, former prisoner governors and health experts will focus on consensual and coercive sex in prisons, as well as the healthy sexual development among young people in prisons. 

The outcome of the review will indeed be interesting for geographers with interest in examining the relationships between sex, identity and spaces of confinement.  These themes have indeed been dominant in previous scholarship.  For example, Teresa Dirsuweit’s (1999) paper based on research in South African women’s prisons revealed the way in which prisoners have transgressed the normal expectations of sexuality.  In order to perform some of the basic human instincts of intimacy and interaction, some women revealed a participation in homosexual relationships and inmate ‘families’ – practices not necessarily associated with their previous lives outside of prison. 

The acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining some form of sexual relationship during incarceration has provided some serious pressure on UK policy-makers to consider allowing prisoners to have conjugal visits – a practice currently denied to prisoners in the UK, though facilitated in other countries such as the USA, Germany and Denmark.  For decades prisoners have expressed their desire to access the same benefits enjoyed by these other countries.  In 2010, Christopher Pollock, an inmate at HMP Birmingham, argued that conjugal visits should be given as a reward for good behaviour, and that partners on the ‘outside’ also suffer greatly without the conventional functions of a sexual relationship. 

Other advocates have illustrated their help in maintaining stronger relationships with the outside world; a factor which is widely considered key to reducing recidivism.  Ethnographer Megan Comfort (2002) conducted a study which focused upon California’s San Quentin State Prison.  Here she interviewed the partners of 50 inmates, some of whom take part in ‘family visits’ where prisoners can have their immediate family stay with them overnight in purpose-built bungalows.   The couples or families could talk, cook for themselves, and of course be physical, in their own company.  One woman named Tee revealed that the main benefit was that ‘you got a little sense of, ‘Hey, we’re really married! We’re really a couple! We’re really, we’re intimate,’ you know, we got to be intimate and everything. (Comfort 2002, 487).

However, conjugal visits have been fiercely contested by organisation such as the UK Independence Party, whose recent statement claimed that the Howard League’s study is a ‘waste of time and money’.  The Party’s Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall MEP argued that ‘imprisonment is supposed to be a punishment – though we all know already that many such institutions are more like holiday camps’.  Although the statement acknowledges that conjugal visits may decrease the level of coercive sexual activity behind bars, Nuttall furthered added: ‘the public, quite rightly, want prisoners to be punished for their crimes – not rewarded with TVs, computers and gyms – and certainly not romantic liaisons with their partners’. 

Other perspectives have also revealed additional opposition.  Comfort’s study also revealed the ‘institutionalising’ of families being forced to conduct relationships under the strict prison regime, which augmented their behaviour – the impact of conducting private lives in public spaces.  To me, this seems to be a key concern and one which was highlighted by prisoner’s wife ‘Julie’ in a phone-in conducted by BBC 5 Live Breakfast.  ‘Julie’ said that she ‘couldn’t think of anything worse than going off into a little room to have sex with [her] husband.  The lack of dignity, it would just be awful … and I know my husband wouldn’t want me to do it anyway.’  This raises the question about the kind of institutional restrictions that would be placed on the intimate relationships between couples, particularly relating to public and prison security and control of contraband items. 

These restrictions appear to exemplify the concerns of the National Offender Management Service surrounding the cultural and organisational changes which would be required to implement conjugal visits.  Suitable visitation areas, some form of surveillance and potentially family planning advice would all have to be provided and budgeted for.  ‘Julie’s’ final comment is that she ‘simply wouldn’t trust the Prison Service to handle this sensitively’. 

In any case, the Howard League report will no doubt provide some reading surrounding such a serious, yet sensitive subject, particularly for academics working in this notoriously-difficult-to-access environment.  However, much more I hope that it is also one which, if the UK is ever to facilitate conjugal visitation rights, could help authorities to implement changes fairly and well. 


Comfort, M L 2002 ‘Papa’s house’: the prison as domestic and social satellite. Ethnography 3 467-99.

Dirsuweit, T 1999 Carceral spaces in South Africa: a case study of institutional power, sexuality and transgression in a women’s prison. Geoforum 30 71-83.

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